Most travelers head to the Mayan Riviera and put down roots at the all inclusive of their choice. By the time they’ve hit the beach, bar and buffet, it’s pretty much a wrap. But for those who, like me, relish drinking deeply from the local cultural and culinary cup of wherever you travel, there’s no better way to whet your appetite in this region than at The Little Mexican Cooking School.

Tucked away on a residential street in the sleepy fishing village of Puerto Morelos (midway between Cancun and Playa del Carmen), you’ll find a lime green and hot pink hanging sign with tell-tale Mexican chiles inviting you to step inside. And yes, The Little Mexican Cooking School is situated in a lovely little home built by Australian Catriona Brown. In fact, she built four of them shortly after discovering what she calls “a little bit of heaven” in the Yucatan Peninsula. She adds, “It reminded me of Bali. Puerto Morelos took about two days to weave its magic and a couple of weeks before I realized I was not leaving. There is a very special feeling of peace and creativity here.” Turquoise waters and talcum white sandy beaches don’t hurt either.

Like most creative people, Brown’s trajectory is a tapestry of colourful threads, which includes starting a successful dive shop in the Mayan Riviera before embarking on building the modern, well-designed homes in Puerto Morelos.

She had initially cooked up the school concept for a friend who unfortunately passed away. By chance and circumstance, Brown says she was left with one empty house when the recession hit. She had however worked in tourism for years and was in touch with what was needed in the market. As a long time fan of taking cooking school classes around the world, she decided that a non-weather dependent activity that gave participants a take-home skill would be the perfect fit for her empty house.

“I call myself a food diplomat,” she says “changing thousands of peoples’ perception of Mexican food and its wonderful people.”  And cooking enthusiasts are responding. The school is the #1 ranked attraction in the region on Trip Advisor, and abroad, Brown was nominated as Entrepreneur of the Year by the International Association of Culinary Professionals this year – a bona fide nod to the work she has been doing since 2009.

As most clever food evangelists do, Brown employs professional Mexican chefs who are passionate experts. The morning I attend class, Chef Pablo Lopez Espinosa de los Monteros shows us how to make the dark and complex Mole Poblano sauce (with close to 30 ingredients!) prepared with chicken, an accompanying contemporary mango and chile de arbol salsa and freshly roasted tortillas for quesadillas featuring the Mexican herb, epazote.  Interestingly enough, Chef Pablo spent seven years in Squamish, B.C. where he owned and operated the award-winning Café Maya, specializing in healthy, authentic Mayan fare.

Having Chef Pablo describe the flavours of the various dried chiles we’ll be using – including the ancho chile (meaning wide in Spanish) with its milk chocolate flavour and slightly bitter finish – is fascinating for those who think chiles always equal palate-scorching heat. They add depth of flavour to Mexican food that very often has absolutely nada to do with Scoville units and everything to do with layers of sumptuous sabor!

This is a partially hands-on class, so I help make the chunky mango and chile de arbol salsa while the husband roasts tortillas over a piping hot comal with local, indigenous women who help Chef Pedro with the class. Menus here are authentic and original – you won’t find any North Americanizations of dishes – which is exactly what I am always looking for.

After the mole is babied in its local clay earthenware pot, the salsas made (we enjoyed a few varieties), the rice prepared, the refried beans seasoned, the quesadillas grilled and the dessert chilled, we sit down to enjoy our multi-course lunch – or comida fuerte – the largest meal of the day in Mexico. Brown sets a beautifully dressed table where you feel like you’re dining with familia. Post-lunch, I shop at the school’s “tienda” and pick up some crushed, roasted pumpkin seed and chile mix to replicate my favourite salsa of the day – the Pepitas Salsa, which happens to be a regional, Mayan specialty. Earthy, seductively smoky and fresh all at once, this is the kind of travel souvenir I love bringing home the most.

Practical Details: Classes cap off at 12 people from Tues-Fri year round, from 10am-3pm, the menus rotate by season, and each class costs $109.99 US/pp. Continental breakfast and full lunch included.

Catriona’s Mayan Riviera Must-Do’s:

  • The region boasts a wonderful abundance of fresh fruit and vegetables straight from the growers, which alone makes meals in the Yucatan instantly richer in flavor. “I urge people to rent a house or a condo and go to the fishing co-op here in the afternoon to purchase fish caught that morning; a few minutes in the pan with a salad of lettuce and mango with jamaica dressing, simply wonderful.”
  •  Mexican wine is the next undiscovered hot item for culinary tourists. For a young wine industry they have surprisingly interesting wines at great prices.
  • The rich history of this land is something not easily discovered when you are only here for a week but is so interesting. Just the history of chocolate alone in this region is worthy of several books.
  • Nothing beats the barbacoa (BBQ) place in town at the colonia opposite Chuliim (that’s how you find it!) Only open Sunday 0800-1100 am when they uncover the barbecue pit fired the night before and pull out roasted goat or pig. They serve goat tacos and beer for breakfast. Enjoy as the locals do!